Countdownby Deborah Wiles, Scholastic Press, 2010, 400 pages, ISBN: 0545106052
October 1962. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Everyone is terrified the Russians are going to drop the Bomb. Eleven-year-old Franny Chapman lives in Maryland near Andrews Air Force Base. Her father is a pilot for the Air Force and is often away from home. Uncle Otts, who thinks he's still fighting the big war, tears up the front yard to build a bomb shelter. Her older sister, a college student, receives mysterious letters which she conceals in a locked hope chest. Her little brother is fascinated by atoms and wants to be an astronaut. Her mother is mortified by all the craziness around her. And her best friend suddenly hates her. At school Franny must participate in duck-and-cover drills, but the kids don't always realize that they're just drills. To deal with her fear, Franny decides to write a letter to Kruschchev and ask him to, please, not drop the Bomb on the United States. Central to Franny's life is music: From Del Shannon's "Runaway" to Pete Seeger's "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" to Sam Cooke's "Chain Gang," the songs of the time are a calming influence on her rather tense existence.
Because I, too, was an Air-Force brat in the sixties, I connected to the social historical details in Franny's story. In 1964, two years after the events of this story, I entered kindergarten on Ramstein Air Force Base, where my father was stationed. I remember the sense of security I felt living on a military base. Franny relates, "Just being on base makes me feel better. There's something solid and safe about it." Like Uncle Otts my father watched Combat every week, and like Franny and her brother Drew my brothers and I watched Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color every Sunday night; in fact, back then it was still hosted by Walt himself. We also ate--and loved--meatloaf and turkey t.v. dinners in aluminum trays. Though the aluminum trays are gone, t.v. dinners, meatloaf and turkey in particular, are still a treat for me. Just as Franny's parents do, my parents played cards with another couple every week, a pastime adults, alas, don't seem to engage in anymore.
Countdown is the first book in the Sixties Project, a planned trilogy of documentary novels set in the 1960s. (Books two and three, yet to be written, are set in 1964 and 1968, respectively. Yea! That means The Beatles.) Throughout Countdown Wiles documents the events leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis with photos, advertisements, songs, speeches, and biographies of crucial people of the time, all of which she intersperses with the novel portion of the book. A reader left a comment after my blog entry Town with a Past suggesting that Countdown was worthy of a Newbery Medal, and I am inclined to agree with her. Countdown is a really good book to introduce middle school students to both that terrifying period in American History known as the Cold War and to the romance and revolution that was the Sixties. I know I'm eagerly looking forward to the second book of Wiles' Sixties Project.